Three seasoned food entrepreneurs took the stage at Kitchen Council July 9. Michelle Dill of Big Green Tomato Granola, Philip Schaffart of The Blackstone Meatball and Katie Arant of Coneflower Creamery shared insights, lessons learned and advice with an audience of new and mature food entrepreneurs.
The three come from different backgrounds and followed a variety of paths into entrepreneurship.
Katie was the only one of the three to have professional culinary experience. After completing the culinary program at Metro Community College, she cut her teeth at M’s Pub, Le Voltaire and 801 Chophouse before moving to Napa Valley where she worked in some of the area’s most renowned restaurants including Bottega, Coqueta and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. She shared her experience in growing Coneflower from being the only person in the kitchen to now managing a kitchen staff of six, as well as about 30 scoopers in the front of house. Her love for production and culinary craft at times makes it hard to account for company growth, she explained. A true question that comes with success when you are a chef founder is, “Can you let yourself leave the kitchen to focus on big vision, management and growth?”
Michelle has had an eclectic career path leading up to granola. A serial entrepreneur launching her earliest business ventures in her teens, Michelle and her husband launched their granola company as a side gig a decade ago. She discovered at that time that she had serious allergies, as well as some discerning taste buds, which led her to create her own delicious, allergy-safe, granola that she wished she could find on the shelves. She went from making it for herself, to making it for friends, to scaling up production. It is still just Michelle and her husband making and packaging all of the product sold online, in Hy-Vee, at Whole Foods and served in schools. Only about a year ago they made Big Green Tomato their full-time jobs.
Phil was upfront about the fact that he does not come from a food background, likes to eat, but never spent any time in a kitchen or behind a bar before founding Pageturners Lounge and The Blackstone Meatball. He is a business person that can put together operating budgets and manage cash flow. Phil very pointedly stated that employees are the best and worst part about running his businesses and shared stories of trial, as well as glory. He loves to give people jobs that they can be proud of and allow them the space to be themselves in their roles. Like Michelle, Phil is a well-practiced entrepreneur and was able to provide sound advice in response to a question about a Small Business Association (SBA) loan, recommendations for establishing your business as an LLC or S-Corp and also paying yourself as a founder as soon as possible.
Each member of the evening’s panel agreed that there is a time and a place to hire professionals. Katie doesn’t even want to think about what Coneflower’s sales would be like without their strong brand that resonates with customers. Michelle is constantly learning something new to benefit business from her lawyer, and also shared how finding the right accountant cost her an unexpected $3K but she pocketed $10K in taxes from the decision to switch. They all seemed to think that if you are serious about your food business, then you should work with professionals to help you: an accountant to make sure you’re set up right for your business taxes, a lawyer to keep you from making mistakes and a marketing professional to create a good brand. These things cost money but save you money in the long run. The other closing piece of advice echoed by all was to listen to everyone. There is always more to learn. Kitchen Council is here to help!